Houston Texans Chairman and CEO Cal McNair made a racially insensitive comment at the team’s charity golf tournament in May, causing gasps in the audience and upsetting numerous employees, according to several witnesses.
McNair, addressing more than 100 attendees at the Houston Texans Foundation Charity Golf Classic at River Oaks Country Club, spoke into a microphone just outside the pro shop as participants gathered in their carts before leaving to tee off via a shotgun-start format.
At the end of his brief remarks, according to two witnesses who asked to remain anonymous, McNair – whose family has owned the Texans since they were founded in 1999 – told the crowd, “I’m sorry that we couldn’t get together last year, because of the China Virus.”
As McNair and his wife, Hannah, looked on smirking, some audience members were stunned by the reference to the COVID-19 virus, which had forced the 2020 tournament’s cancellation.
“Everyone gasped,” one witness said, “especially the people directly across from him. He and Hannah seemed to think it was hilarious. It was dead silent.”
In a statement to Bally Sports via a Texans spokesperson Tuesday, Cal McNair expressed contrition for the remark.
“My comments at the event last May included an inappropriate choice of words,” McNair said in the statement. “I immediately apologized to people who approached me then and I apologize again now. I know how important it is to choose my words carefully. I would never want to offend anyone.”
The revelation about McNair’s comment comes at a particularly sensitive time for the NFL, which has been rocked by the recent resignation of Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden in the wake of leaked emails containing racist, homophobic and misogynist content. The emails, sent by Gruden during his time as an ESPN commentator to then-Washington Football Team executive Bruce Allen, were uncovered as part of an investigation into a workplace misconduct scandal which resulted in owner Dan Snyder relinquishing day-to-day control of the team to his wife, Tanya.
Though the NFL kept results of the investigation private, with attorney Beth Wilkinson issuing only a “verbal” report, that soon may change. Last Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell received a letter from the House Oversight and Reform Committee seeking documents and information regarding the league’s handling of the investigation by Nov. 4.
Thus far, of the 650,000 emails reportedly unearthed by Wilkinson, the only ones that have become public involved correspondence between Allen and three people outside of the organization, with each facing scrutiny for his behavior. NFL general counsel Jeff Pash made a flippant comment about a wall at the Mexican border and appeared to show favoritism toward the Washington organization, according to the New York Times. ESPN’s Adam Schefter referred to Allen as “Mr. Editor” and sent him an unpublished story on the 2011 NFL lockout, soliciting input on whether anything “should be added, changed or tweaked.” Gruden made racist comments in reference to NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, among other offensive statements.
The scandal that took down Gruden came at a time when the NFL has displayed a heightened awareness of racial inequality. In the wake of nationwide protests following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, the league had “End Racism” in end zones and played the Black National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) before games, among other gestures designed to show support for social justice.
Against that backdrop, McNair’s public use of a term that Asian American advocacy groups have linked to a rise in hate crimes against members of their community — and one which then-President Donald Trump helped popularize in the early months of the pandemic — seems particularly tone-deaf.
After Cal McNair’s comments at the golf tournament, according to one attendee, Hannah McNair joked about her husband’s use of the term “China Virus” to several people who had been present for the remark. The previous week, according to an organizational source, Hannah McNair — the vice president of the Texans Foundation — had made a public-facing visit to a local Asian community center.
McNair has been the Texans’ Chairman and CEO since his father, Bob, died in November 2018. A multimillion dollar contributor to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Bob McNair had been the source of organizational turmoil the previous fall, when ESPN reported that he had told other NFL owners that they “can’t have the inmates running the prison” during a meeting to address player protests about police brutality.
Two Texans players, including star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, skipped practice on the day Bob McNair’s remarks surfaced, and veteran tackle Duane Brown spoke out against the owner’s comments, calling them “disrespectful … ignorant … embarrassing.”
Shortly thereafter, then-coach Bill O’Brien had to convince players to board a team flight to Seattle for that Sunday’s game against the Seahawks. The majority of Texans took a knee before the game. The following day, Brown was traded to the Seahawks, for whom he still plays. (Hopkins was traded to the Arizona Cardinals following the 2019 season.)
At the time, Bob McNair apologized for the comments, but he retracted the apology in an April 2018 interview with the Wall Street Journal, claiming he had been referring to NFL officials when he used the term “inmates.”
There have been other high-profile examples of NFL owners facing allegations of racism and sexual harassment in recent years. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson abruptly sold the team in 2017 after he was accused of repeated sexual harassment toward female employees and of directing a racial slur at a Black scout.
In July 2020, CNN reported that New York Jets owner Woody Johnson — then serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom — had been investigated by the State Department watchdog amid allegations that he had made racist and sexist comments to staff members and had sought to use his government position to benefit President Trump’s personal business interests. The NFL did not launch a separate investigation into Johnson’s actions, and the State Department’s Office of Civil Rights later ruled that the allegations against him were unsubstantiated.
The Washington Football Team hired Wilkinson in July 2020 to examine allegations of sexual harassment and other improper conduct within the organization, with the NFL later taking over the investigation. A year later the league fined the team $10 million and depicted the culture as “very toxic” but did not make any of its specific findings public, citing a promise to protect the confidentiality of current and former employees. However, more revelations may be coming, given last Thursday’s Congressional intervention into the matter.